Lawmakers pass budgets, end 2023 Legislative Session

By Diana Carlen
WAWG Lobbyist

The Legislature adjourned Sine Die as scheduled on the 105th day of the 2023 Legislative Session on Sunday, April 23. In the final week of the session, the Legislature focused on two items: bill concurrence and finishing negotiations on the state’s biennial budgets: operating, capital and transportation. Additionally, the governor has begun signing bills into law.

Budgets pass

On the last day of the session, the Legislature passed a $69.3 billion, two-year budget. The budget adds roughly $4.7 billion in new spending and leaves $3 billion in total reserves. While it does not propose any new general taxes or fees, it does rely on the revenue for the first time from the capital gains tax and cap-and-trade program. Notable highlights include: 

• $2 million for the Department of Commerce to contract with the Western National Laboratories or a similar independent research organization to conduct an analysis of new electricity generation, transmission, ancillary services, efficiency, and storage needed to offset what is currently provided by the lower Snake River dams.

• $500,000 for the Department of Ecology to conduct an analysis of how to continue water use for irrigation during drawdown related to potential lower Snake River dam removal.

• $8.53 million to the Conservation Commission for implementation of the Voluntary Stewardship Program.

• $480,000 for the governor to invite federally recognized tribes, local governments, agricultural producers, commercial and recreational fisher organizations, business organizations, salmon recovery organizations, forestry and agricultural organizations, and environmental organizations to participate in a process to develop recommendations on proposed changes in policy and spending priorities to improve riparian habitat

• $2.26 million for the Department of Ecology to provide technical assistance to landowners and local governments to promote voluntary compliance, implement best management practices, and support implementation of water quality clean-up plans focused on protection and restoration of riparian management areas for salmon recovery. 

• $3 million to the Conservation Commission to support the outreach, identification and implementation of salmon riparian habitat restoration projects.

• $2 million for the Conservation Commission to develop and implement an educational communication plan to the general public and landowners regarding the importance of riparian buffers and actions they can take to protect and enhance critical areas.

• Approximately $2 million for the Department of Fish and Wildlife to continue the assessment of riparian ecosystems.

• $500,000 for the Department of Ecology to contract with a third-party consultant to gather stakeholder input and make recommendations on the design and implementation of a producer-responsibility program for consumer packaging, including paper, plastic, metal, glass and paper products. The report is due to the Legislature by Dec. 1, 2023. Legislation to establish an EPR program stalled during the legislative session, but will likely be back during the 2024 session.

The 2023-25 capital budget, which funds brick and mortar construction (excluding transportation), appropriates $8.9 billion for the biennium, utilizing $4.7 billion general obligation bonds and reserves approximately $95 million in bond capacity for the 2024 supplemental capital budget. Below are notable highlights:

• $95 million for the Salmon Recovery Funding Board grant programs.

• $25 million for Salmon Recovery Funding Board: Riparian Grant.

• $3 million for 2023-25 Voluntary Stewardship Project Funding under the State Conservation Commission.

• $10 million reappropriation and $25 million appropriation for Riparian Restoration with Landowners.

• $60.7 million for the Columbia River Water Supply Development Program.

• Reappropriation of $3 million for the Voluntary Stewardship Program.  

The 2023-2025 transportation budget appropriates a total of nearly $13.5 billion utilizing Climate Commitment Act funding for the first time. Below are notable highlights:

• $5 million for Department of Transportation to analyze highway, road and freight rail transportation needs and options to accommodate the movement of freight and goods that currently are transported by barge through the lower Snake River dams. Additionally, $500,000 to the Joint Transportation Committee to engage an independent review team to work in coordination with the greater analysis.

• $2 million for the Joint Transportation Committee to oversee design of an infrastructure and incentive strategy to drive the purchase and use of medium- and heavy-duty vehicles in the state and a review of the passenger vehicle tax incentive in current law.

No resolution on ag exempt fuel issue

In early April, Sen. Mark Mullet (D-Issaquah) introduced SB 5766 that would have created a rebate fund administered by the Washington State Department of Ecology to provide relief to farmers and farm haulers that are paying a carbon fee on fuel that is supposed to be exempt under current law. Unfortunately, farmers would not have been able to apply for a rebate until the beginning of 2024, and the bill did not specify when Ecology had to issue rebates. The rebate amount also would be limited to a certain percentage of the auction price at the time the fuel was purchased and not the actual amount of the surcharge paid. The bill would have also prohibited fuel suppliers and distributors from disclosing the amount of the carbon surcharge on fuel invoices. The legislation received widespread opposition from exempt fuel users, fuel suppliers, Ecology and the Governor’s Office. As a result, the scheduled public hearing on the bill was cancelled. 

The agricultural industry appreciates Sen. Mullet’s leadership to try and resolve this issue and will continue to work on a solution that honors the commitment of the Legislature to fully exempt agriculture from paying the carbon surcharge on fuel used for agricultural purposes.